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To be at your best at work, you need both purpose and pleasure

Gordon Tinline, Business Psychologist

To be at our best in terms of performance, life satisfaction, and ultimately our psychological health and wellbeing – we need to experience both a sense of purpose and pleasure.

We feel a sense of purpose inside and outside of work, when we’re engaged in a task or activity that has real meaning for us, which fits with our values and identity, and is contributing to one of our bigger picture goals. When we experience pleasure, we feel a rush of positive feelings or a deeper sense of contentment and happiness. But one without the other is rarely sufficient in bringing about success in the long-term, neither in a personal or professional capacity.

What is purpose without pleasure?

Purpose without pleasure is being occupied in an activity you are tasked with, but don’t really enjoy doing. In other words – it is behaving dutifully out of a sense of responsibility. And whilst there isn’t anything wrong with that in the short-term, trying to sustain this way of life without feeling some pleasure or fulfilment along the way can lead to eventual burnout.

What is pure pleasure without purpose?

Conversely, what is pure pleasure without purpose – party time? There’s a lot to be said for just cutting loose and enjoying an occasion without any concern about meaning. In fact, when you see some people in full party mode, it’s probably just as well that they are not preoccupied with what it all means! However, a life dominated by pleasure without purpose would almost certainly leave you feeling rudderless and eventually dissatisfied by the pointlessness of it all. In addition, when we experience significant setbacks in life, it is revisiting our sense of purpose that provides the foundation for recovery and rebuilding.

How does this all relate to career progression?

From time to time it’s worth reviewing where you are with your work in terms of your purpose-pleasure balance. There may be times during your career when you have purpose without pleasure, and when you spend a significant amount of time working on something you consider important but just don’t enjoy. If that is the case, it is important to get some respite and ensure you can intersperse the core work with a least some activity that just makes you feel happy.

If it is pleasure that is lacking:

  • Discuss with colleagues how you might have more fun at work. Are there short activities you might all enjoy that you could legitimately build into the working day?
  • Take a proper lunch break and indulge in a hobby or activity that brings you pleasure, such as reading a novel, going for a run, or just meeting friends for a good chat
  • Reflect on whether there is a deeper level of satisfaction or pride you get from doing your job even when some aspects are not intrinsically enjoyable as you undertake them

Equally, you may be enjoying what you are doing, but consider it meaningless or trivial. In this situation you can either try balancing this with activity you find more meaningful or you can try to find purpose in what you are already doing.

There is the somewhat over repeated anecdote about the man sweeping the floor at NASA who when asked what he was doing said “I’m helping put a man on the moon!” Of course, he may not have been getting any pleasure from sweeping the floor and relating it to the mission was the only way to tolerate it.

If you conclude you are lacking purpose you could:

  • Review with your manager the range of work you are doing and discuss how it relates to what is important to the business and to both of you personally
  • Think about how what you are doing has an impact on others or makes a small but important contribution to success against larger goals
  • Consider whether you need a fresh challenge in a new role or in another part of the business

As I say, purpose and pleasure are closely intertwined, especially when it comes to our careers. It is possible to have one without the other, but this isn’t conducive to our wellbeing or progression; therefore we owe it to ourselves to occasionally check in and review our purpose-pleasure axis, and take action when we are low in either area or both.


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Gordon is a very experienced occupational psychologist (Chartered and Registered) and works on a freelance basis (GT Work Psychology).  Gordon has broad cross-sector and multi-level experience.  He has worked extensively with the Police Service, in Defence, with the NHS, in Financial Services and with science and engineering companies, as well as a wide range of other businesses.

Gordon’s work is often focused on helping managers and leaders maximise the wellbeing, psychological resilience and performance of their teams.   As well as his Masters level qualification in occupational psychology he has an MBA from Warwick Business School.  He has recently co-authored a book with Professor Sir Cary Cooper on mid-level role pressures and development (The Outstanding Middle Manager).




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